Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Gender, the Parasitical State, and Revolution

The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte is, it is often asserted, a classic. It is as rewarding a document for a meta-reading, or a history of reception, as any—see Donald Reid’s 2007 essay in Modern Intellectual History for just such a project. But before a scholarly survey of this kind can be properly appreciated, the text itself should be read because the reception history of a work is more interesting when one understands how complex the thing is all on its own.

The Brumaire recounts in some detail the period from February of 1848 to the days just following Louis Bonaparte’s coup of December 2nd, 1851. The tone is one of bitter invective and scorn; the mode is very often satire. The question, of course, was how what began as a proletarian revolution could end in a cheap, tawdry, strong (but really weak)-man dictatorship. Today the spectacle of a revolution descending into tawdry authoritarianism is so banal as to be declared often enough a law of history. At the time, in France, certainly dictatorship was associated with revolution, but it should be born in mind that if 1789 eventually lead to military dictatorship—Napoleon’s empire—it did so first by passing through a Jacobin period that had the highest possible ambitions, and that Napoleon himself was easy to see as a world-historical genius. Marx’s task, then, writing in the 1850s, was to understand and explain the path revolution had taken, and indicate what might be the consequences, theoretical and practical, of this revolution.

By way of introducing what Marx says about the interrelated issues of the state and the class base of Louis Napoleon’s power, and considering the relation of this to Marx’s other work, I would like to make a rhetorical, or metaphorological, point that I feel smells strongly of a certain outmoded style of criticism, and that perhaps has already been made.

The famous opening passages of the text catalogue symbolic borrowings of various revolutions from history—these borrowings go from narratives to costumes. Marx puts language in a central position here. Indeed, he makes the learning of a language the metaphorical bridge from the faintly ridiculous actual history of these borrowings to an imagined revolution: “Likewise a beginner studying a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue; but only when he can use it without referring back, and thus forsake his native language for the new, only then has he entered into the spirit of the new language, and gained the ability to speak it fluently”(32).[1] In the case of the 1848 revolution, however, farce is in the air. Marx’s satire holds what is, what is said, and what ought to be, up for inspection. Louis Bonaparte is a con man running a nation as an emperor in order to pay his own debts. Everything is tawdry and small in comparison to past revolutions. If the Brumaire has become a central text for interpretation of Marx’s understanding of ideology, it is because he pays so much attention here to language and its power, perception and reality—to the essential emptiness, or lack, that drives the logic of public political discourse.

I would like to suggest that we link this obsession with farce, the tawdry, the small, and the emptiness and corruption of discourse, with Marx’s occasional, throw-away comparisons of politics and sex. There are a few remarks in the text, not central to the argument, but which in good post-structuralist fashion, I would like to suggest might provide a key to its rhetoric. It need hardly be said that Marx’s sexual politics are not those of the politically correct 21st century. First, famously, we have, “it is not enough to say, as the French do, that their nation has been taken [by Louis Bonaparte] unawares. A nation like a woman is not forgiven the unguarded hour in which the first rake that tries can take her by force”(36). In reference to the eventual arrival of Odilon Barrot at the head of a ministry, a position he had sought for many years, Marx says, “he brought the bride home at last, but only after she had been prostituted” (49). Later on, more obliquely, discussing the accumulation of small bribes by which Bonaparte purchased the loyalty of the army, we find a similar trope, “hence the shamefaced despair, the feeling of terrible humiliation, degradation, which weighs down upon France and suffocates her. France feels dishonored. Just as under Napoleon there was scarcely any pretext for freedom, so under the second Bonaparte there was no longer any pretext for servitude” (116). Finally, and again veiled, there is the gender imaginary implied in the joke Marx makes discussing the duping of the peasants about the merits of the newer Napoleon, who perhaps does not really have a right to the glorious name he bears. Louis Bonaparte arrives protected by the Napoleonic (law) Code, under which “all inquiry into paternity is forbidden” (118).

The point here isn’t the boring simple-feminist one that Marx had reprehensible, perhaps Victorian, views about virtue and chastity, corruption and promiscuity. The point is rather the (I hope more sophisticated) sort of one made by gender analysis. The same set of idealist beliefs Marx had about the virtue of women slide over into politics, and seem also to govern the relationships he perceives between political action and social foundation. Louis Bonaparte is a weak and self-interested individual who finds the social foundation of his power in the conservative elements of the least-organized class, the small-holding peasantry. If he himself is a member of the lumpenproletariat (the members of which, it should be pointed out, typically have low moral standards), and if he draws his personal army from their ranks, his support in the larger society comes from what is essentially his seduction of a simple—but morally reprehensible—class. The smallholding farmers are only half a class, although they share the physical make-up of a class, in other words are united by a similar relation to and means of production, they lack the intellectual or superstructural unity, the community, that forms a class. Marx ends his breathtaking single-paragraph analysis of this sector of society thus:

They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must also appear as their master, as an authority over them, as an unrestricted governmental power which protects them from other classes and watches over them from on high. The political influence of peasant proprietors is ultimately expressed in the subordination of parliament to the executive, society to the state.(p. 117)

It must be admitted that this description is not unlike a certain 19th century idea of woman—who would, if admitted into the homosocial community of politics, only drag unfreedom into it by acting simply as the proxy of her husband or her priest.

Louis Bonaparte is not the only object of Marx’s scorn in the Brumaire. The fragmented and indecisive bourgeoisie also comes in for much abuse. (It should be indicated here that a good point of comparison with Marx’s analysis of the political dynamics of these years is Maurice Agulhon’s book on the Second Republic. Agulhon, like Marx, sees the Republic as caught, paralyzed, between the twin dangers of popular uprising and monarchism; unlike Marx, he has, or is able to express, more respect for the political perspicacity of Louis Bonaparte in allowing each faction to believe what they liked about him, playing them off against one another). The source of Marx’s scorn, though not of his hostility, is the failure of the bourgeoisie to insist on the alignment of its economic and its political power. Marx heaps invective on the bourgeoisie because, fragmented as it is, it effectively renounces political life—which for Marx is the power to act (108)—in the hope of thus securing its economic creature comforts. That is, the bourgeoisie falls away from its ideals and prostitutes itself out. Sexual and political virtue are confounded.

Now, I will want to wait and see how Marx’s analysis of this period appears in his later, post 1870 writings on France, but it seems possible to assert that this confusion of virtues makes it difficult for Marx to see the potential of what Louis Napoleon had done. When Marx looked at the new regime, he seems largely to have seen only the socially marginal, the classless, and therefore corruption that is coded sexually—for instance in his reproduction at the end of the piece of the quip about the specific difference of the new regime: “France has often had a government of mistresses, but never before a government of kept men” (126). I understand that the Brumaire was referred to in the 1930s as a tool for understanding the rise of Fascism, seen then as a classless gang of petty criminals grabbing power from the weak and divided bourgeoisie. Is it permissible to suggest that this kind of analysis makes sense only when one cannot fully appreciate the power of political rhetoric because one is trapped in a sexist grounding of moral virtue on physical innocence? The purity of the physical must be certain, or there can be no moral (which is to say, spiritual) force? Could this be a sort of cruel irony whereby the sexist assumptions of progressive rationalism prevented it from seeing the enormous power and danger of fascist demagoguery? Or perhaps this is going much too far. It would none the less perhaps be interesting to see if previous feminist readings of the Brumaire (which must exist, but which I know nothing about) move in this direction.

The above is a little unfair to Marx in that he does not base his entire analysis of Louis Napoleon’s power base on the staging of an act of sexual violence. Marx’s treatment of the nature and tendencies of the French state is also crucial here. What I find most productive here in terms of a Marxist vision of French history is how close Marx comes to describing the state as itself a sort of class. The material reality of this seems to have made a great impression on Marx. The president, as head of state, has the power to fire and appoint 500,000 bureaucrats, which is to say that 1.5 million individuals (the families of the appointees), owe their daily bread to him personally (44, 67-8, 115, 122). According to Marx, during the Second Republic, the president makes a strong contrast with the national assembly, “While each individual delegate of the people merely represents this or that party, this or that city...He is the elect of the nation...The elected national assembly stands in a metaphysical relation to the nation, but the elected president stands in a personal one” (45). [2]

Marx’s analysis of the French state and the role it plays in Louis Bonaparte’s ascension must have an important role his broader interpretation of 19th century French history. (Clearly expressing Marx’s position here also provides a crucial substratum for reading Lenin—indeed, it seems to me now that I must go back and re-read State and Revolution to see precisely what it was that Lenin adds to Marx, and what he merely renames). The great centralizing bureaucratic apparatus of the French state—and Tocqueville would agree with Marx here—developed first under the absolute monarchy, and in the sequence of revolutions in the earlier part of the century, always served as the tool of the rising bourgeoisie (115-116). This has been the history of the state, “this executive with its enormous bureaucratic machinery of state...this fearsome parasitic body, which traps French society like a net and chokes it at every pore...All upheavals perfected this machinery instead of destroying it...Only under the second Bonaparte does the state seem to have achieved independence with respect to society and to have brought it into submission” (115-116). The state, if it is conceived as a monstrous parasite, must of course have a host. It must also have support, “state power is not suspended in mid-air” (116), the cohort of bureaucrats themselves are not enough support. Here we return to the above-mentioned small-holding peasants, the formless class seduced, with the aid of the Napoleonic legend, into supporting Louis Bonaparte.

The discussion above of the curiously directionless nature of the small peasants is important here. If these peasants exist in no sense as community or organization, and are a group only by virtue of the similarity of their employment (that is, their position relative to the means of production), then the state as it is described by Marx is precisely the opposite of this. It is entirely organization, and has no material substrate whatsoever. It is an unproductive parasite. The opposition isn’t highlighted by Marx, and has, we might say, a poetic content rather than anything else. It is one more sign that the end is near.

Terrell Carver, in his brief accompanying note calls the Brumaire a “consolation.” In what sense? In the sense that Marx attempts to show some progressive result to the catastrophe of having such a nonentity as Louis Napoleon rise to power. Marx says,

It’s plain as day: ‘all Napoleonic ideals’ are ideals of the undeveloped smallholding in its heyday, but for the smallholding that has outlived this, they are an absurdity. They are merely hallucinations of its death struggle, words transformed into phrases, ideas into spectres, befitting dress into preposterous costumes. But the parody f the empire was necessary to liberate the bulk of the French nation from the weight of tradition and to work out in pure form the opposition between state and society. The demolition of the state machine will not endanger centralisation. Bureaucracy is only the low and brutal form of a centralization which is still afflicted with its opposite, feudalism. When, disappointed with the Napoleonic restoration, the French peasant will cease to believe in the smallholding, the whole edifice of state erected on this smallholding will collapse, and the proletarian revolution will obtain the chorus without which its solo becomes a swan song in all peasant countries. (p. 123)

The whole course of revolution, Marx suggests, can be read as a ‘heightening of the contradictions’ in a political sense. In the whole period up until the coup in 1851, revolution had “developed parliamentary power so that it could be overthrown. Now that this has been attained, it is developing the executive power, reducing it to its purest expression, isolating it, confronting it as sole challenger in order to concentrate all its powers of destruction against it” (115). That is, the purification of executive power represented by Louis Bonaparte is a necessary stage in the development of the consciousness of the rural population before an urban proletarian revolution can be successful.

Here is the basic inspiration for Leninism, although my sense is that Lenin made explicit the important additional step that it would be necessary for the proletariat to seize and use the full force of the bureaucratic machinery of state built by the bourgeoisie in order to eliminate the bourgeoisie. Here, also, is a theory on the level of the political that is structured much in the same way as an ‘economist’ Marxian theory of revolution. Based on Capital alone, one might well think that Marx’s theory of revolution was largely limited to the developing contradictions between the means of production and the relations of production (property). Perhaps the overlap I see here is the famous ‘dialectic’ applied to both realms. Or perhaps my reading of Marx is clouded by my reading of Lenin. Yet it seems that Marx is here posing his characteristic theory of social change as contradiction driven evolution-then-revolution in a manner that leaves economic change almost entirely out of the picture. No doubt much effort has been made by other more accomplished exegetes of Marx than this one, to make the two versions line up.


[1] I am reading from the Later Political Writings, edited by Terrell Carver, published through the Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought series. It seems to me that this earlier passage mentioning the learning of a language must certainly be read as the first part of another, more famous passage a few pages on: “The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot create its poetry from the past but only from the future...Past revolutions required recollections of world history in order to dull themselves to their own content. The revolution of the nineteenth century must let the dead bury the dead in order to realise its own content. There phrase transcended content, here content transcends phrase” (32). That is, we might say, the revolution is in fact taking place only when the form of what takes place is no longer drawn from the textbook of the past, but arises out of immediate necessity.

These passages suggest two areas of comparison. The first is with the history of suffrage in France, in particular the intellectual-philosophical history approach to it taken by Pierre Rosanvallon. Another is to compare Marx’s analysis of the concept and physical reality of sovereignty in this and perhaps other texts with the current obsession with the idea, drawing primarily on Schmitt and Agamben, in contemporary Theory. Having mentioned Schmitt, I’d like to record my impulse, which will go unfulfilled here, to compare what he says about the parliamentary system in The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy to the various critical noises Marx makes here. The sentiment Schmitt identifies is supposed to be shared by the right and left—what relation does that fin-de-siècle and interwar manner of thinking actually owe to the Brumaire?

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